Figures from both sides of the 1981 Springboks tour gathered last night at the scene of one of the tour's most infamous events to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela.

About 200 people were at a remembrance service at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton, including former anti-riot police officer and MP Ross Meurant, who spoke of his admiration for Mandela.

At the time of the tour, Mr Meurant was second-in-command of the Red Squad riot-control group, while John Minto - who organised last night's service - was instrumental in organising opposition to the tour.

On July 25, 1981, about 350 Minto-led protesters invaded the pitch of Waikato Stadium - then called Rugby Park - and forced the cancellation of a game between Waikato and the touring side.


Last night, Mr Meurant told the crowd, who had permission to be on the playing field for the service, that Mandela had been an "outstanding statesman" and "one of the most precious and remarkable gifts ever bestowed to mankind".

Mr Meurant, who hadn't been back to the stadium since the infamous protest, said the events of the tour had changed him forever. "The greatest journey has been my personal development, from deep in the forest of police culture and distorted reality, to the ability to see where I was wrong - and where the system fails us," he said.

Mr Minto said he respected Mr Meurant for attending and said it was "appropriate" he spoke.

The service was about everyone "putting their baggage aside" and commemorating Mandela's New Zealand legacy, which was the 1981 tour, he said.

"This is the big connection New Zealand has with Mandela. It's not a connection with the Government of New Zealand, it's not a connection with people who were calling Mandela a terrorist 30 years ago.

"This is a connection with the people who made a difference to the struggle against apartheid and supported his release from prison and his campaign for civil and political rights."